Quick – who was the person in the Old Testament who was the closest to God?
That was a question a Sunday school teacher of mine once asked. Some said Moses and some said David (I think some said Abraham – I’m not sure.) Wanting to be different and not give the same answer as everyone else, I said “Adam,” knowing I was sure to draw some puzzled stares. “Before he sinned,” I clarified.
I remember asking my Dad during church that day how he would have answered that same question. I distinctly remember his answer: “Melchizedek.”
“Mel who?” I said, laughing aloud in unbelief. What a ridiculous name!
But sure enough, when he directed me to Hebrews Chapter 7, there was Melchizedek. And he was, indeed, very close to God.
Who is this mysterious man Melchizedek? I won’t repeat all of the details about Melchizedek that the writer of Hebrews gives. I’m asking the question about who was he? Christian theologians have written about him a lot over the centuries, and there are some fascinating arguments made for just who he is. My favorite possibility is that Melchizedek is Noah’s son, Shem, the one who is especially blessed and the one from whom the Semites or Shemites, including Abraham, are descended. If Melchizedek were Shem, he would have been in his 500s when he met Abraham, and shortly after Melchizedek meets Abraham, God makes his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. Shem was 98 at the time of the flood and lived until he was 600, and his life would have overlapped with Abraham’s for 150 years. If Melchizedek were Shem, and Abraham knew this, consider how much greater he might have considered Shem to be, who personally went all the way back to the covenant God made with Noah and who would have been the only men alive (perhaps excepting Ham and Japheth) who had actually lived in antediluvian times. Knowing the respect that the patriarch of a family was given, we can only imagine the respect Abraham would have given his great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather!
Another theory states that Melchizedek was a manifestation of the pre-incarnate Christ. Melchizedek is not only the priest of God Most High but also the king of Salem or of Jerusalem, that is the king of peace or Prince of Peace. And, of course, Christ was both priest and king. Melchizedek was without father or mother and without genealogy. He was made like the Son of God, and he remains a priest forever. How wonderful to think that Abraham might have seen Jesus Christ Himself!
This is so much fun that I wish I had time to go into more detail. But “of these things we cannot now speak in detail.” Unfortunately, I don’t ultimately buy into either of the fascinating theories I just elaborated. If Melchizedek were Shem, why wouldn’t he simply be called “Shem,” just 3 short chapters after the genealogy of Shem in Genesis 11? The fact is that we do know Shem’s genealogy in great detail. According to Philip Edgecombe Hughes’s classic commentary on Hebrews, the interpretation that Melchizedek was Shem was introduced by rabbinical scholars at the end of the 1st century A.D. as a way to counteract the high view of Christ of the writer of Hebrews.
As far as the theory that Melchizedek was a pre-incarnate Jesus Christ, I’d like to believe that too, but ultimately I don’t. The fact is that Melchizedek is like the Son of God. This way of speaking about Christ, if Melchizedek were Christ, would, however, undermine the higher view of Christ of the writer of Hebrews, and our faith in Him as the Son of God, and not merely one like Him. Jesus Christ, who is a man, did have a genealogy and mother and father: in fact, He has the most celebrated genealogy and mother in all of history! The writer of Hebrews keeps calling him a man, and so even if it could be Christ, it would be the human side of Christ, complete with beginning, parents, and genealogy. As speculative as the early church fathers sometimes were, most of them agreed that Melchizedek was a man, and not Christ.
What has happened is that we have forgotten how to interpret the Bible typologically, that is, in terms of types. Clearly, the writer of Hebrews is using a kind of interpretation well known by the ancient world, the ancient church, and the church up until the time of the Reformation. In typology, a person or thing is a type or prototype for the antitype or true thing that is to come. In this way, the entire Old Testament, with its covenant, law, priests, temple, and sacrifices, are all types of Christ. The writer of Hebrews is using Melchizedek as only a part of his larger typological interpretation that Jesus Christ is superior to angels, Aaron, and the Old Covenant.
Oh dear! I’ve spent my whole time talking about speculations about who Melchizedek might be, and very little time in talking about who Jesus Christ is. I’ve taken my eyes off of Jesus, who is the real point of Chapter 7 (and not Melchizedek) and who is my High Priest. When reading the fascinating parts of the Bible, or any part of the Bible, the goal is not to get hung up on endless speculations or to go off on tangents. These have their place in Bible study, but Bible study is not necessarily a form of worship and devotion. Too often, we allow our Bible “study” to turn into games of Trivial Pursuit or intellectual or imaginative exercises – and we miss Jesus Christ.
If we come to this fascinating passage in Hebrews 7, and leave it without having encountered Jesus Christ but only His type, Melchizedek, then we have missed the point entirely. As great as Melchizedek was, typologically, the point is that it is Jesus Christ who is the King of Righteousness and the Prince of Peace. It is Jesus Christ who is our High Priest who intercedes for us and who remains a Priest forever who has sacrificed for us. It is Jesus Christ who was begotten and not made, and it is Jesus Christ to whom Abraham and Aaron, and Melchizedek and all of us, must bow our knees in worship.
Prayer: O Lord, forgive me for the times when, even in hearing your Word, I have been distracted from seeing You. Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in Your Word, the most wonderful of which is You Yourself. Give Yourself to me today that I might truly see You for Who You Are, and, having seen, to worship You as I ought. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
1. Meditate on the superiority of Jesus Christ to the temple, priest, and sacrifices of the Old Covenant. Respond appropriately with praise and thanksgiving.
2. Meditate on the superiority of Jesus Christ to every other aspect of your life.
Resolution: I resolve to meditate on Jesus Christ as revealed in Hebrews 7 and to find one way to appropriately respond to who He is and His Presence in my life today.
© 2013 Fr. Charles Erlandson
Category: Give Us This Day